When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” the “others” he was referring to could easily have been the passengers who make a Chicago cab driver’s life a living enfer in Will Kern’s hilarious (or should that be “hellarious”) Hellcab, back at the Elephant Theatre for the first time since its smash 2005 run with its director and cab-driving star once again along for the ride.
Danny Parker-Lopes is Hellcab’s unnamed driver, and the only character onstage from start to finish as assorted passengers enter, interact, and exit in scenes as short as under a minute, the sum of which add up to one deliciously, delightfully bumpy ride “just a couple days before Christmas.”
There’s the evangelical couple who remind the cabbie that his immortal soul (and the question of whether he will spend the rest of eternity in “a fiery pit” surrounded by “weeping and wailing and the gnashing of teeth”) just might be more important than his mundane job, and lest anyone accuse them of not providing their children with a good Christian upbringing, Dad assures the driver that his tiny tots are getting good old-fashioned Christian discipline. “We just spank their little bottoms,” he remarks with paternal affection. “Not too hard. Just hard enough to make it hurt.”
There’s the Eastern European passenger whose years as a cab driver make our hero’s four months on the job seem tame by comparison, and who offers him this sound bit of advice: “I may drive like maniac, but at the end of the night I have three hundred dollars and you have measly one-fifty.”
There’s the scary passenger who leads the cabbie down a dark alley (and quite possibly into tomorrow’s headlines), the horny cougar who has more on her mind than just a taxi ride (“Just call me ‘Sugar Mama.’”), and the lesbian couple (originally written as straight) who inform the driver in no uncertain terms that whatever oral sex goes on in the back seat of his cab is none of his business.
And these are just some of the folks who must surely be based on the real-life Chicagoans and out-of-towners whom playwright Kern chauffeured round town during his cab-driving days. (My guess is that those who’ve complained that the Hellcab riders are “overdrawn stereotypes” haven’t driven a taxi in The Windy City.)
Specifically written for a black-and-white cast, Hellcab’s African-American characters are among its most interesting—the female Lawyer who challenges our driver’s preconceived notions about the legal profession, the father-to-be and his pregnant wife on a mad rush to the hospital before baby arrives, the cab driver who calls himself “X-Man” in honor of Malcolm X yet refuses to pick up those of his own race, the sassy honey in an emotionally abusive relationship who just doesn’t get it that she needs to get out, and most impactful of all, the older architect who makes an emotional connection with our hero through their shared losses.
Other memorable scenes include our taxi-driving protagonist going out of his way to inform a nice girl he’s only just let out that the man she’s been sharing a cab with only sees her as someone to “poke” whenever he’s in town, and the evening’s most dramatic ride, one with a shell-shocked woman who informs our hero of an act of sexual violence only just now perpetrated on her.
If the more serious, dramatic moments that arrive near the end of Hellcab’s intermissionless eighty-minutes don’t come across as out of another play entirely, it is due in great part to David Fofi’s ever masterful direction, and by a cast of actors who insure that even at their most over-the-top, Kern’s characters remain real people—though not necessarily those you’d hope to meet in your average everyday life.
Designed as a vehicle (no pun intended) for seven actors, six of them playing a half-dozen or so roles each, Hellcab returns to the Elephant with a rotating cast of twenty-six, a dozen-and-a-half of whom may be appearing at any one performance, though not necessarily in the same roles they played the night before—the result of which is a production that allows a particularly large number of actors to shine—and one that might easily inspire repeat visits.
Kimberly Alexander, Cody Andersen, Katherine Barcsay, LeShay Tomlinson Boyce, Eric Bunton, Meghan Cox, Anita Curran, Lawrence Dillard, Etienne Eckert, Kim Estes, Keena Ferguson, Jennifer Finch, Rey Goyos, Jason Konopisos, Scott Krinsky, Shannon McManus, John Charles Meyer, Marina Mouhibian, Erick Nathan, Tara Norris, Dominic Rains, Ethan Rains, Tim Starks, Charlotte Taschen, and Joe Tomasini are the oh-so talented featured players taking turns supporting the subtly brilliant Parker-Lopes, who anchors the production with a performance of such subtlety, sensitivity, and depth, it will stick with you long after Hellcab’s final passenger has paid his or her fare.
Elephant Stageworks Design gives cabbie and riders just the sort of banged-up yellow cab you’d expect to see on a Chicago thoroughfare, the Christmas wreath-on-grill and Santa figure-on dashboard offering reminders of the season. The production’s effective lighting is by Elephant Stageworks Design as well. Sound and costume designs, both uncredited, are also topnotch.
Danielle Ozymandias is executive producer.
Though neither you nor I would likely ever want to trade places with anyone seated inside Will Kern’s Hellcab, the couple dozen fares we get to experience from the safety of our theater seats add up to one hell of a fun ride.
The Elephant Space Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
December 17, 2014
Photos from trailer by James Pippi